As the Cuban Revolution enters its 57th year, it’s hard even for its most ardent defenders not to have some mixed feelings about how everything’s panned out. But looking back at those heady years of utopian possibility following Castro’s triumphant march into Havana, it’s also hard not to be a little moved by everything that moment represented. For film fanatics in particular, the Cuban Revolution signified the beginning of one of the most effervescent and innovative movements in global cinematic history; a moment in which young Cuban filmmakers saw themselves at the vanguard of Cuba’s cultural transformation, and were actively encouraged to take formal and thematic risks in their work.
It all started in 1959, when the new revolutionary government inaugurated a national film studio dubbed the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC) as their first cultural act. Recognizing the importance of visual communication in the construction of a new society otherwise mired in underdevelopment and illiteracy, Castro viewed cinema as an essential tool in the creation of a critical revolutionary consciousness in the Cuban people. To this end he named his close friend and confidant, Alfredo Guevara (no relation to el Che) as the Institute’s first president.
Guevara had known Castro since their days as militants in the Communist Youth, and had since gone on to pursue a career in experimental theater while also working sporadically on films during his exile in Mexico. His background in radical politics, intellectual disposition, and avant-guard artistic bent made Guevara a perfect candidate for the the presidency of the ICAIC, and under his direction Cuba’s nascent revolutionary film industry began to flourish.
To foment production, the ICAIC sent young, would-be filmmakers to different European cultural centers to familiarize themselves with the processes of production. There they were inspired by the artistic renovations being carried out by the Italian Neo-Realists and French New Wave, which they infused with revolutionary zeal upon their return to Cuba. Together with foundational directors like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Julio García Espinosa — both of whom had studied before the revolution at Rome’s world-renowned Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia — ICAIC filmmakers took on the task of creating a cinema suited to the needs of a new Cuban society, employing inventive takes on fiction, documentary, and newsreel.
The films explored Cuban history, revolutionary consciousness, current events, and even openly criticized the failings of the Revolution — all in an effort to awaken a critical consciousness in the Cuban people and guide the ever-evolving revolutionary process. Julio García Espinosa ultimately articulated some of the basic tenets guiding these filmmakers in his seminal 1969 essay Por un cine imperfecto (Toward An Imperfect Cinema), in which he criticized the “perfect” illusionistic style that dominates filmmaking, and spoke of the importance of making films that reflected the imperfection of life in both form and content.
Unfortunately, by the 1970s the Cuban Revolution had strayed from its idealistic origins and began to favor bread-and-butter issues like agricultural production over revolutionary cultural practice. Though many seminal filmmakers continued to work under more repressive conditions, output slowed significantly and important directors like Nicolás Guillén Ladrián were forced to flee persecution for their provocative works. Today the ICAIC continues to exist as Cuba’s official state film studio, though it has become notorious for its low-quality output. Meanwhile, a new generation of independent filmmakers on the island have taken the mantle of their post-revolutionary forebears to bring Cuba’s unique cinematic tradition into the 21st century.
Here are some essential works.
Memorias del subdesarrollo
Memories of Underdevelopment
Director: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
Based on a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, Memorias is considered the unrivaled masterpiece of post-revolutionary Cuban cinema. A formal collage of fiction, documentary, and newsreel, Memorias explores the existential ennui of a bourgeois Havana landlord who sticks around to watch the revolution unfold out of lazy curiosity.
Director: Humberto Solás
Released the same year as Memorias, Lucía embodies director Humberto Solas’ lifelong preoccupation with Cuban history and his unique, Marxist interpretation of Latin American melodrama. Three generations of women named Lucía live through watershed moments in Cuban history, transforming their views of themselves and the world with each revolutionary act.
De Cierta Manera
One Way or Another
Director: Sara Gómez
Perhaps the brightest star in a new generation of Cuban filmmakers following in the wake of Gutiérrez Alea and company, Sara Gómez was an unapologetic Afro-Cubana filmmaker who tragically died before this, her greatest work could be completed. De cierta manera mixes narrative and documentary styles to tell the story of an idealistic school teacher working in Havana’s poor slums who confronts unresolved challenges facing the revolution. In the wake of Gómez’s death, the post production was carried out by García Espinosa, Gutiérrez Alea, and Rigoberto López.
Las aventuras de Juan Quinquín
The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin
Director: Julio García Espinosa
Though he may be known more for his theoretical contributions, Julio García Espinosa also left his mark on Cuba’s post-revolutionary filmography with this whimsical, Brechtian tropical western. Juan Quinquín is a poor campesino trying to get by in the Cuban countryside, who takes on a series of adventures accompanied by his best friend, Jachero, and his beloved Teresa.
Director: Santiago Álvarez
The master of the Cuban newsreel, Santiago Álvarez is perhaps best known internationally for this dynamic and provocative short, which in many ways is a precursor to the modern music video. Ostensibly recapitulating the struggles of the American Civil Rights Movement, Now is a masterful example of how Álvarez could transform simple news items into a powerful call to action.